Finding the topic

A reader writes, essentially, that droning on as I have about how to organize your notes is putting the cart way before the horse:

“I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind taking the time to answer a question I have regarding how you more or less typically end up with a story idea worth chasing after. Another follow up question would be how many ideas, or projects, do you typically have going at once? Throughout your career, have there been certain common denominators when it comes to how you come across leads worth pursuing?”
It happens that this is the aspect of the writing life at which I think I’m least good. The person to whom to address this question is Michael Lewis, who always finds terrific topics for his best-selling books. His are usually about sports and money — two topics for which Americans seem to have bottomless appetite. I don’t say this derisively. Money and sports consume a lot of Americans’ time and energy, so it is important that they understand them well and Lewis is doing the country a service writing the books he writes.
I can write well enough and Margaret is a terrific editor, so our books get good reviews that you can see by clicking through to each book’s page from here. But none of books sold many copies because, I think, none of our topics was particularly compelling or of-the-moment. 
As for magazine articles, I have no magic to offer except always to have your antenna up.  Re-watch the movie Capote with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the eponymous writer. In the first scene, he reads a six-inch story about the murder of a four-person family in Holcomb, Kansas, on page two of The New York Times and immediately picks up the phone to call his editor at The New Yorker. “I want to write about this,” he says, and in so doing Capote invented an entirely new genre, the “non-fiction novel,” a form to which I will return in this space. 
As for what you can do to find stories, read newspapers and magazines, and take notes while you do — people’s names, names of documents you’re going to need, dates, events, and so on. What I personally look for is something that can be made into a story — with beginning, middle, and end, a good cast of characters, some action, and, if possible, some national significance. It also has to interest you, deeply. I hate to say something as seemingly useless as this, but you’ll know when you see it.” Your idea should thrill you. It should be something about which you want to be thinking 24 hours a day for the foreseeable future. Be bold. Don’t talk yourself into timidity with such self-defeating claptrap as: “I’ll never get access.” “I won’t understand it.” “I’m not an expert.” Make access. Find people to explain it all to you and read deeply. Turn yourself into an expert.
Teachers and books used to advise beginning writers to write about what they know about. Tom Wolfe turned that on its head in a way that is spot-on: Write about what you know nothing about. That way, you have to ask the basic questions and can’t fall back on your half-baked misconception-filled “understanding.” 
You can pretty much reverse engineer any of my magazine proposals, or even my book proposals and see what got me there. 
You could also assign yourself a beat. Way back in 1977, when Iran was holding the American diplomats hostage and the Carter administration was imposing financial sanctions on Iran, I knew a freelancer who made it his business thoroughly to understand how those sanctions worked, where the Iranian assets were parked, how “freezing” them worked, and so on. He turned himself into the country’s leading expert in the Iranian sanctions and thus was in demand by magazines that wanted to report on them.
I’m thinking now about assigning myself a beat: covering, day to day,  the process by which the city in which I live — Boulder, Colorado– aims to create its own electric utility. I knew it was a good story for me when I saw yet another story about on page one of my local paper and heard a voice in my head say, “what about that?”* I realized in a flash that the story contains a lot of what I want in a topic right now —  a chance to get a piece of the climate-change story; it’s positive, instead of grimly negative and contentious; it’s local, so I don’t have to uproot myself and Margaret, it has a manageably sized cast of colorful characters; and I can fit it in around the job I’m currently holding. Once I’ve done enough initial spadework to write, say, a dozen dispatches about it, I’m planning to send irregular missives —  as a kind of serialized non-fiction book —  to the 338 people who used to read my daily newsletter Third Act Trouble. I also have a national magazine wanting me to turn all those dispatches, six months to a year from now, into a podcast. 
As for how many ideas I have going at once, I might have two or three percolating until one emerges as the solid bet, at which point I will store the folders containing notes on the others somewhere safe, to be taken up in the future. 
Short answer: choose the topic that most moves your heart. Because you’re going to be living with this idea, full time, for quite a while.
*In all honesty, the voice was Margaret’s. It was who suggested I write serially about Boulder’s attempt to detach from the big corporate utility and start it’s own. 

One thought on “Finding the topic

  1. To which I would add: look at ordinary things and find something nobody has thought about, or a story that you think you can tell in a way nobody has told before. Here’s a freebie–one I’ll never do because I have enough trouble with anxiety as it is: I’ve always wondered about the people who run these schools that give high school students driving lessons. What do they see every day? How does it feel to get into a car with a driver who has an above-average chance of getting into an accident? Does it take nerves of steel, or just a Zen-like acceptance of whatever calamity may befall? What are teenagers’ most common misconceptions about driving? Do they really feel, once they’ve stamped some kid’s certificate, that they have done their part to keep the roads safe–or are they just playing their role in a charade? (Judging from the car accident rate, I’d bet it’s about 50-50.) Finally: what are they teaching these kids about merging onto a freeway?? Because I keep running into people who have zero idea of how to do it.

    Yeah, this story has been done somewhere before. But write it funny and somebody will pay you for it.


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